How employee benefit firms weathered Harvey

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As the Gulf Coast region starts to recover from the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey, brokerages and benefit specialists in the Houston area are recounting how having a business recovery plan in place helped them keep their doors and phone lines open for clients who needed assistance.

Once it was confirmed the storm would hit Houston, Cary Goss, principal of Houston’s Clarus Benefits Group, on Aug. 24 began to put his firm’s emergency plan in place. With voice calls limited due to network availability issues, his first action was to establish a text message chain with his eight employees to ensure he had an open line of communication with them.

Next, he called his information technology provider to confirm the company’s virtual network was fortified so that employees could access the system remotely. Goss ensured his backup systems were in order, including multiple backups in the cloud as well as a hard copy backup of all client data. He took the hard copy with him when he evacuated to Navasota, about 70 miles northwest of Houston. Although he did not need to use backup because he never lost access to the information in the cloud, “there was some comfort level having in there,” he says.

At employee benefit brokerage Hoffman Insurance Group, headquartered in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, it’s standard practice for the firm’s 14 employees to receive all emails and phone calls directly to their mobile phones. Steve Hoffman, the agency’s CEO, explains this information forwarding was invaluable during the storm, when roads were not passable.

Nevertheless, his firm was prepared for a disaster, placing all company data in the cloud and giving every employee a take-home computer. “We went through [Hurricane] Ike … so we had a recovery plan in place,” he says.

After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, many businesses took stock of how they handled the large natural disaster to plan for future events, explains Robert L. Heston Jr., president and CEO of Legal Access Plan LLC, headquartered in downtown Houston. After Ike, his company put a strategy in place to set up two command centers with a third rollover center in the Northeast.

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On Aug. 25, he executed that plan, but struggled with where to establish local centers based on the projected path of Harvey, which made landfall both west and east of Houston.

The uncertainty drove Heston, whose firm also operates as The LegalEASE Group, to set up his post north of Houston, in Dallas. In the middle of the night, a team of his employees drove up to Dallas to set up a call center in a hotel conference room. They had to move fast, he recalls, as hotels in Dallas and surrounding areas quickly filled. He also had to be sure to find hotels that could meet his firm’s Internet demands to handle a call center operation.

Loss of electricity was an expected struggle that was incorporated into the planning process. When power went out, calls were shifted between the three command posts. “We had [that] plan in place from Ike and it worked very well,” he says. The outages varied from short to long, occurring throughout the storm at each location.

Companies should divide up responsibility, develop a communications plan, contact their insurer and be supportive of employees.
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Hoffman experienced a similar issue. Many of his employees’ homes lacked Internet or power. Despite that, no client calls or requests went unanswered.

On Aug. 31, with the storm out of Houston, five of Hoffman’s employees came into the office, as many couldn’t get out of their neighborhoods at that point.

Eight of Heston’s employees have substantial or complete home damage. His firm established a GoFundMe to help raise money for their expenses. Meanwhile, the full team is back in Houston. Since the Houston Independent School District will be closed this week, his firm is paying two professional teachers/sitters to care for the children of employees so their parents can still come to work.

Both Goss’ and Hoffman’s team are now back in the office, with employees reporting limited or no damage to their homes.

Although Goss’ home experienced some flooding, he considers himself fortunate. “We had some water in our house that will require new sheetrock and painting, but really not a big deal,” he explains.

Despite the hardship these companies faced, they are grateful to have had a plan in place, and that so many people were concerned about them. “People have been amazing,” Heston says. “[They] want to help.”

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